Programming Profile: A new home for Turner Original docs

The rumor mill was working furiously at this year's Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival spouting 'news' that Turner was getting out of docs by the end of 1998. From the producer's pov, this meant one of the giants of broadcasting had...
November 1, 1997

The rumor mill was working furiously at this year’s Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival spouting ‘news’ that Turner was getting out of docs by the end of 1998. From the producer’s pov, this meant one of the giants of broadcasting had turned its back on non-fiction programming.

But as with all rumors, this one turned out to contain some wild speculation mixed with a nugget of truth. tbs and cnn will see format changes, but docs still have a permanent home.

At the end of 1998, Turner will move all docs meant for tbs to cnn, with the exception of National Geographic Explorer and Wild!Life Adventures. Explorer is under contract until the end of 1999, but plans are underway for renewal next year when the contract allows for extensions. Wild!Life Adventures, a Turner Original Production, is slated until the end of 1999, with development plans stretching into the next century.

Pat Mitchell, president of Time Inc.-Turner Original Productions, sees this transfer of documentary programming as a natural progression for the company. ‘We had already begun to produce for CNN: 55 hours of big historical programming,’ .

‘When we began to look at putting this kind of programming on cnn, it occurred to us that a lot of the other kinds of docs that were on tbs might work really well on CNN [in terms of] creating appointment viewing and giving us an opportunity to do long-form, in-depth looks at current issues – which is the kind of programming CNN thought it needed more of.’

The end result will be a regular doc strand on cnn in 1998, aired either once a week, or once a month. By 1999, the frequency should increase to more than once a week.

There was speculation that the changes had something to do with CNN’s current ratings slip. Mitchell wouldn’t comment on CNN’s position, but acknowledges the reach non-fiction programming has achieved.

‘If you look at the ratings for broadcast and for cable, you can certainly see there’s an appetite for news magazines and these one-topic, in-depth explorations of historical and current issues,’ Mitchell says. ‘The demographic that CNN has is highly educated. I think that demographic will be attracted to the documentary work. But, I think we can also bring in a slightly younger demographic which is traditionally there for the news.’

CNN will still use outside producers, but maintains final editorial control. Supervising producers will be assigned to every project. Mitchell does hope for one editorial change, however: ‘I’d like to see us find a place to showcase some of the world’s great documentary-makers who have a hard time finding a place in the North American market. I see many good docs when I’m at the markets that just don’t get a fair showing over here.’

As far as the rumors go, Mitchell isn’t very concerned. ‘This was a decision we’ve been moving towards for some time – since we started to produce The Cold War, and it became clear to us that it should not go to tbs, but to cnn. In the last year, we have tested it by airing some of the documentaries that went out on TBS originally. We aired them on CNN, and they did very well.’

As far as primetime news-magazine development, cnn is likely to launch only two new magazines in 1998. When CNN president Rick Kaplan was nabbed from ABC News earlier in the year to revamp the news net’s sked, it was expected he’d shoot for five new projects – one for each weeknight – to air after Larry King Live. At an average cost of about US$7 million for each magazine hour, the total weekly cost of US$35 million seems to have proven too rich for CNN’s blood.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.